Image: Secretary Of Defense Leon Panetta
Pool  /  Getty Images
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is shown in Singapore on Saturday before his trip to Vietnam.
updated 6/3/2012 1:20:46 AM ET 2012-06-03T05:20:46

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta arrived Sunday at a former U.S. air and naval base at Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam, becoming the most senior American official to go there since the war ended.

Panetta said he hopes to encourage efforts with Vietnam to locate and identify more of the U.S. war dead who are still missing.

He plans to visit the USNS Richard E. Byrd, a cargo ship operated by the Navy's Military Sealift Command. The ship has a largely civilian crew and is used to move military supplies to U.S. forces around the world.

The U.S. military's Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command has six recovery teams and two investigative teams in Vietnam searching for troop remains. There are about 1,200 unaccounted for service members believed to be in Vietnam.

Panetta arrived after addressing a defense conference in Singapore, where he sent a message Saturday that America's new military focus on the Asia-Pacific is not intended to raise tensions in the region or threaten Beijing.

The Pentagon chief appeared to offer an olive branch to the communist power and said often feuding rivals must learn to work better together for the benefit of the entire region.

Delivering his most extensive thoughts to date on the fragile state of U.S.-China relations, Panetta said neither side is naive about their disagreements.

"We both understand the differences we have, we both understand the conflicts we have, but we also both understand that there really is no other alternative but for both of us to engage and to improve our communications and to improve our (military) relationship," Panetta said at a security conference in Singapore.

Story: Panetta: Majority of US warships moving to Asia

At the same time, however, Panetta said Asian nations must find a way to resolve their own conflicts because the U.S. cannot always come charging in to help.

Tensions between the U.S. and China reverberate across the region, and are often focused on America's support of Taiwan, which China regards as a breakaway province and threatens to use force to block any Taiwanese bid for formal independence.

Another area of dispute is the South China Sea, which Beijing claims almost entirely as its own. But Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and the Philippines also have territorial claims.

More recently the U.S. has been vocal in blaming China for cyberattacks that emanate from the country and steal critical data from U.S. government agencies and private American companies.

Panetta's speech was designed to give a more detailed explanation about the new defense strategy. It puts more focus on the Asia-Pacific, including plans to increase the number of U.S. military personnel, warships and other assets in the region over the next several years.

Specifically, he said that by 2020, about 60 percent of the fleet will be assigned there as part of a new strategy to increase U.S. presence in Asia. Currently, the Navy has about 285 ships, with roughly half assigned to each coast, but that total may decline a bit as some ships are retired in the coming years and may not be replaced.

The current fleet includes 11 aircraft carriers, with six assigned to the Pacific. The West Coast total is expected to go down to five, but Panetta said he will maintain six carriers in the Pacific over the long term.

While noting it may take years to complete the transition, Panetta said that U.S. budget problems and cutbacks would not get in the way of changes. He said the U.S. Defense Department has money in the five-year budget plan to meet those goals.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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